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A Symbol for Change: How Face Masks Became More than just CDC Protocol

. 3 min read
A Symbol for Change: How Face Masks Became More than just CDC Protocol

Written by Sophie Andreesen.

Three months ago, on April 4th, the CDC’s updated requirement for facemasks in public came as a jarring foreshadow to the summer ahead. A  gateway into the “new normal”. At this point in time I was still adjusting to the new-found lull in my schedule and, with every free moment, daydreaming about the return to my joyfully, overwhelming New York routine. A symptom of the pandemic that people don’t seem to address, is self-centeredness. Yes, we are all at home facing similar struggles, but the isolation allows the struggles to personalize in our heads. Amidst soaring unemployment, staggering lines at food banks and hospitals facing overcrowding and a lack of supplies, the same personal questions echoed through my mind daily.  Why am I living back with my parents? I miss my job and my friends! What will my future be? Even facemasks became a frivolous solo voyage. Which mask goes best with my style?

But much has changed since April 4th, and the masks that once symbolized our own personal futures now represent collectivism in a movement larger than ourselves. On May 26th, the day after George Floyd’s death, people took to the streets in Minneapolis. Notably, the crowds showed diverse faces and backgrounds. Men and women from all walks of life and of all ages, unified by their demand for justice and, visually, the masks across their faces. As days and weeks went by, protests spread to cities in all 50 states and over 20 countries around the world. The crowds, all diverse, punctuated by masks.

While masks emphasize the reality of life under a pandemic, they also serve as a symbol for change in today’s global civil rights protests. Historically, fashion has always played a part in advancing movements, unifying groups and their intentions, and providing a visual symbol for their requests. During the 1960’s, women in miniskirts marched for equal opportunities to men and liberation from years of oppression. Around the same time, the Black Panther Party formed in conjunction with the Civil Rights Movement, its members identified by black berets as they challenged police brutality in Black communities.

It is difficult to speculate what the symbol in today’s protests may have been under normal circumstances, but undeniably facemasks unify crowds in their direness to take action. As thousands of people step out of their homes to advocate for change, despite health warnings and restrictions, the gravity of the virus is never forgotten. Only reconfirmed by the fabric shields covering their mouths. Protestors stress there is no other time for change, that the gravity for justice and equality weighs just as heavy, if not more so than the pandemic.

The demonstrations began as a demand for justice after George Floyd’s death and evolved into a call for societal change. Protestors came armed with compassion in the fight against systemic racism. In a time where smiles are covered, a mask is the ultimate sign for compassion, the regard for others health. Beyond the cardboard signs scribbled with calls for action, the seas of masks perfectly encompass the movement’s motivation. People are not only demanding a better future for those they know, but for those they don’t.

As the country and the world start to see the beginnings of change, there is recognition of the long road ahead. After months of isolation, people have found power in community and collectiveness. Masks have come to symbolize coming together, no matter the circumstances, to fight for something larger than oneself.

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